I’ve been a fan of George F. Walker since high school. He writes intriguing, complex plots. He writes the kind of characters that every actor wants to play but no normal person would actually want sitting in their living room. They are just people who populate this world with their less-than-desirable characteristics. Don’t kid yourself—you have those characteristics too.
Walker’s newest play, We the Family, which opened at Hart House Theatre last week, works like a kaleidoscope of people, events, and settings. The whole play is a series of vignettes, usually presented in two-handed scenes. All the characters pair off with each other; all interrelate as the beads in the kaleidoscope tip in ever-changing patterns.
Oddly, we never meet the play’s protagonists. The newlywed couple is off on a globetrotting honeymoon and their families—hers Chinese, his ex-Jewish/Irish—are left to deal with each other. While the couple gets kidnapped and held hostage, the groom’s father, David (John Cleland), is making business deals under the table and cheating on his wife; said wife Lizzie (Sarah Murphy-Dyson) develops a close friendship with her Middle Eastern colleague Ali (Mike Vitorovich), sparking all kinds of racist comments from her mother-in-law (Connie Guccione). Meanwhile, David and Lizzie’s daughter Marnie (Lindsey Middleton) is smoking pot with her sister-in-law Lucy (Sherman Tsang) and her grandfather (David Cairns). And that’s just the beginning. The writing is some of the tightest I’ve heard. It made me want to buy the script and read it a couple more times to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. It’s also hilarious due to several factors such as the actors’ instincts for jokes and director Andrea Wasserman’s indulgence in the joke behind the joke. Funny doesn’t have to have words. A look can be funny. A breath can be funny. A death (or two) can be funny.
We the Family writes into an issue that dominates the theatre world these days: racism and blind casting. Walker has written roles for people of specific racial backgrounds. This is a bold move because it means that fewer actors are standing around in period dramas and corsets pretending to be white. It also means that We the Family puts a humorous spin on serious topics such as racism and prejudice. There’s a fine line between funny and offensive, and Walker treads that line right down the middle. The world is not yet void of either racism or sexism, and instead of avoiding these issues, We the Family confronts them.
The one thing I caught bugging me about We the Family was the set. Although the initial impact was positive, giving the actors lots of room and levels to play with, I found the outcome clunky. It was so deep, so vast and dark and complicated, that I think the play would be better served in a more intimate space. Hart House is by no means modest—the auditorium stretches back in a cavern of red velvet, and the stage goes nearly as far back in the opposite direction. There is so much humanity in these people, so many details and nuances, that I wanted to be on the same level as them, sharing the space with them.
Since there is so much foot traffic, with actors coming and going at breakneck speeds, costuming plays a very important role in terms of both characterization and keeping track of time. Walker enthusiastically chucked the three unities of space, time, and subject matter out the window: We the Family takes place over significantly more time than the requisite 24 hours, in many, many locations, and concerns itself with many different plot lines. Needless to say, Aristotle would not have been impressed. But the specific costuming helps the audience keep track of what day it is, assuming a new day for every outfit change. I imagine the wings of Hart House Theatre are covered in clothing, as many changes happen very quickly.
As well as keeping track of time, clothes also give insights into who the characters are. Marnie, for instance, wears a dress in her first scene and a pair of jeans and a plaid top in her second, showing two sides of herself. David’s mistress Sonya dresses like a stereotypical prostitute disguised as a business woman.
Standout performances include Cleland and Murphy-Dyson, who carry through the play with punch and wit. Sonya, played by Jessica Allen, I love in spite of myself. Sonya very much takes the plot by surprise, struggling between what she wants and what she has to do to get it. Middleton also plays a sharp and poignant Marnie, pivoting between being 18 and too good for everything and showing her more sensitive side.
We the Family plays at Hart House Theatre until October 3.